They stood at the summit of college football for what felt like a gloriously fleeting few seconds before incurring the wrath of a relatively short tumble down the face of the mountain.
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, a program that spent the better part of 12 years arguing its "relevancy" in college football, validated their position as preeminent members of the sport's elite class by reaching the 2013 BCS National Championship Game before living out an underwhelming 2013 season.
The Irish are no longer flailing and violently beating their wings to convince the critics they belong.
Rather, head coach Brian Kelly has set the program up for long-term success during his tenure, and climbing back to the summit is only a matter of resolving a minor number of concerns.
The first step of the process is the return of an individual player critical to the program.
The Return of QB Everett Golson
In mid-May of the current calendar year, Golson was expelled from Notre Dame for what was later revealed to be cheating, or "something like that," as the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native phrased it during an interview with Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples.
Tommy Rees filled in admirably during Golson's time away from the university, but as is out of his control, his own physical limitations prevented Kelly and former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin from running any elements of the read-option offense. And as a result, the offense's rushing game suffered, falling all the way to a national ranking of 82nd (149.0 rushing yards per game).
Last season, the Notre Dame offense ranked 38th nationally in rushing offense and tallied 23 rushing touchdowns compared to just 10 this season.
But with Golson being handed the keys to the offense, Kelly and whomever he hires as his next offensive coordinator will be allowed the luxury of opening up the offense in a way that wasn't an option with Rees, as my colleague Keith Arnold detailed last week.
It's no secret that effectively and efficiently running the football is a key to success (just ask Auburn and its 335.7 rushing yards per game attack), which is an area that must be improved for the Irish to make a run to a top-tier bowl game, or, possibly, the College Football Playoff next season.
That brings us to the running backs.
Identify a Core Running Back Rotation
Concisely, Notre Dame's running back rotation in 2013 was a jumbled mess.
During the early stages of the season, Kelly and Martin experimented with a combination of George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel, while displaying a hesitancy to play highly regarded freshmen backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
After Atkinson proved he hadn't learned to run with a low pad level, Carlisle struggled with consistency and Bryant was lost for the season with a knee injury, the rotation switched to what should be considered a "1A-1B" tandem of McDaniel and Folston.
The inherent problem is that each of the running backs listed are slated to return next season, which makes determining the ratio of carries a mystery all its own. However, the rotation that makes the most sense for next season would be a "1A-1B-1C" scenario including McDaniel, Folston and Bryant, in no particular order.
McDaniel's trustworthiness—the Coppell, Texas, native rarely turns the ball over and overcomes what he lacks in athleticism with smart decision-making—is what makes him a valued running back. While Folston's brilliant 2013 performance—the freshman back averaged 5.6 yards per carry—makes him, perhaps, the Irish's most lethal weapon at the position entering 2014.
However, the most intriguing of that trio may be Bryant, per Kelly (via CSNChicago.com's JJ Stankevitz):
"We're really excited about where he can be next year," Kelly said. "I think we did the right thing with him not playing this year because I can see his development and how he's going to help our football team next year. He's a dynamic player."
Solidify the Defensive Line
Perhaps the most complex personnel concern to shore up during the offseason will be along the defensive line.
Nose guard Louis Nix will, indeed, be heading to the NFL, after he signed with an agent earlier this month. Current defensive end Stephon Tuitt is pondering joining Nix in the professional ranks, though the 6'6", 322-pound behemoth may heavily consider returning to school for his senior season after receiving feedback on his draft status.
Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt received a 2nd Round grade from the NFL's Underclassmen Advisory Panel according to Brian Kelly.— Scott Wright (@DraftCountdown) December 24, 2013
Will a second-round NFL payday be enough to sway Tuitt, or will he desire to finish his degree and work toward becoming a surefire first-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft?
Tuitt's decision on that front will significantly alter the course of the Irish's defensive line entering 2014.
Should he stay, Notre Dame would feature a solid front three of Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Tuitt. But should he chase greener pastures, Notre Dame would face significant depth concerns, as Day, Jones and Isaac Rochell would be the only contributing defensive linemen from the current season slated to return in 2014.
Either way, the Irish's defensive coaching staff will be banking on Chase Hounshell, Tony Springmann and the incoming freshmen defensive linemen (Andrew Trumbetti, Matt Dickerson and Grant Blankenship) to provide quality depth in 2014.
For if the Irish defense struggles to stop the run, any College Football Playoff aspirations will be dashed rather quickly.
Promote Continuity in the Hiring of New Coordinators
It was only a matter of time before Kelly would be forced to replace either one or both of his coordinators.
The fourth-year head coach faces the task of hiring both a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator to replace the departed Martin (head coach at Miami of Ohio) and Bob Diaco (head coach at Connecticut).
While some may see the hiring process as simply seeking out the biggest available name on the coaching market, it's much more complex than that. For Notre Dame, that's especially true on the defensive side of the ball, as Kelly noted earlier this month (via IrishIllustrated.com):
I would tell you that the coordinator's job at Notre Dame, now having been here for four years, requires a lot of experience in defending so many different looks. One of the most important things is you don't have a lot of knowledge of your opponents unfortunately with so many different teams that come in and off our schedule, so you have to have a great bank of experience. I think you have to have a great deal of experience coming into the position, but I don't want to paint myself into a corner and say you can't be it. I really think it helps.
Now, you can gain a lot of that by maintaining continuity on your staff. I expect to do that. I expect to keep all my staff, other than losing my coordinators.
Based on Kelly's comments, it appears, at first glance, that he may favor hiring from within the staff to replace Martin and Diaco, and that seems likely given the difficult nature of hiring two quality coordinators in one season.
Adding to that notion is current defensive line coach Mike Elston's decision to turn down Diaco's offer to become defensive coordinator at Connecticut, which is likely a sign that a promotion for Elston at Notre Dame is forthcoming.
Regardless of who is hired as defensive coordinator, all signs point to Kelly choosing the in-house route for his replacement.
The same holds true for the offensive side of the ball, where Mike Denbrock is the Irish's interim offensive coordinator for the Pinstripe Bowl. Having coached the outside receivers and coordinated the passing game since 2012, stripping Denbrock of the interim tag would be a sensible move for Kelly and Co.
Denbock's experience with Kelly—he coached under Kelly at Grand Valley State along with his time at Notre Dame—makes him more than a qualified candidate for the job.
In the end, continuity will continue to be the most integral factor when Kelly considers replacements, making the promotion of Elston and Denbrock the most likely scenario following the Pinstripe Bowl.
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